Customer Research Best practices

The Comprehensive Customer Interview Guide To Help You Ace Your Research

September 1, 2021
11 min read
The Comprehensive Customer Interview Guide To Help You Ace Your Research

Imagine you need to place a pizza order for a stranger. What would you do? Would you guess what toppings they want based on what you like or what the people around you typically choose?

That’s a dangerous game, especially considering how heated the debate about pineapple’s place in the pizza world can get. The far better strategy would be just to ask the person what they prefer.

It sounds so simple in theory, but you may feel hesitant when it comes to customer interviews. We know it may be new to you. We know you’re unsure what to ask, who to talk to, and how to make sense of what you hear.

But when done well, customer interviews bring you closer to product/market fit and help you make informed decisions. And you don’t need complex and expensive research panels to get the job done.

Every company can benefit from customer interviews—here’s how

A customer interview, also called a user interview, discusses current or potential customers about their goals, challenges, or feedback on your product.

Here are some criteria to help you judge if customer interviews could benefit you:

  • You have limited resources to build and market your product
  • You want to find out if users would pay for your product or service
  • You need to understand how customers perceive your company

Chances are, at least one of those statements applies to you and your company. That’s because customer interviews aren’t something to reserve for the largest corporations—businesses of all sizes and stages can benefit.

Roy Opata Olende, Head of UX Research at Zapier, shared that,

It shows you whether you should prioritize X feature or Y feature, because there’s an insight from a real customer that shows you something is a bigger problem.
-Roy Opata Olende

Now that you’re good and curious about running user interviews for your company, let’s break down each phase of the project.

Phase one: prepare now, thank yourself later

Preparation is key for customer interviews. Getting organized before the fact helps you make the most of the limited time you have with the customer and repeat the process with multiple customers.

Choose a topic

If you want a repeatable customer interview process that helps you prioritize your work, you need to start with a topic in mind.

Setting an objective upfront makes it easier to choose relevant questions, select the right participants, and let customers know why you’re doing this.

Your topics will either be outcome-driven or role-driven. Here’s what we mean.

Outcome-driven goals depend on what decision you want to make with your learnings. Examples include:

  • Would people pay for this product?
  • What features should we add next?
  • How can we differentiate our company?

Role-driven goals vary between functions and their responsibilities. Here are a few ideas with the type of information each role can garner from interviews:

  • Designers can learn what stands out to users
  • Product managers can learn how users feel about features and what they want to see next
  • Marketers can understand what positioning resonates with users and how to stand out from competitors
  • Founders can test product/market fit and make informed decisions

Recruit participants

Once you know what you want to learn, you need to decide who can give you the perspective you need. In general, you want to talk to the people who will use the product or feature you’re researching. Selecting and interviewing participants goes a bit deeper than that, though.

We asked Scott Middleton, CEO of Tarem Technologies, to share his top customer interview tips. When you’re preparing for an interview, he advised you need to:

Make sure you understand as much as you can about the type of person you need to interview. Be aware of the difference between early adopters versus laggards. You should also make a hypothesis about their behaviours (how they spend their time, what they do, what they prioritise) and list your key assumptions about the customer and your possible solution.
-Scott Middleton

When you have an idea of who you want to talk to, you need to get them on board with the interview. We have a complete guide to recruiting research participants, but here are a few quick pointers:

  1. Be upfront about requirements. People should know exactly how much of their time you need and what type of person you need to talk to.
  2. Set up an automatic incentive. Participants will appreciate fast payments, and you and your team can skip manually sending incentives. Great Question can help you with this.
  3. Make it clear that this isn’t a sales pitch. Your recruitment page needs to let participants know this is research, and you won’t be pushing a sale at the end of the call.

Create your script

The introverts of the world already know the value of planning out what to say before you get on a call. Even the most outgoing researchers benefit from an interview script, however. A defined set of questions makes sure you don’t forget anything and ensures you ask everyone about the same topics.

The core sections of your script should be:

  1. Preamble: Introduce yourself, give them background info on why you’re conducting the research, and make sure they know this isn’t a sales pitch. Generally set expectations and get comfortable.
  2. Interviewee kickoff: Give interviewees space to introduce themselves and their general goals and challenges
  3. Core questions: Ask your essential questions that address your goal of the interview
  4. Product feedback: Pitch your product and ask how it resonates
  5. Outro: Thank them for their help and ask if you can stay in touch moving forward

P.S. We have a downloadable customer interview template here.

Phase two: ask, record, transcribe

Your planning is complete, and you’ve made it to interview day. Hooray! Now it’s time to follow your plan and capture responses.

Have backup

Ideally, conducting user interviews is a two-person job. If you’re busy writing notes as fast as you can, you won’t have time to listen to participants and dig deeper into responses. So, aim to have a moderator and an interviewer.

The role of each includes:

  • Moderators ask the questions, actively listens, and deliver follow up questions
  • Notetakers record interesting responses and document points to discuss with the team

Actively listen

Since the moderator doesn’t have to worry about taking notes, they have more time to listen. It’s best to avoid leading questions or putting answers in people’s mouths. A leading question would sound like “Did you find this feature difficult to use” versus a non-leading question, “What was your experience like using this feature?”

If you want someone to expand on their answer, use laddering. This method of questioning digs into four levels of motivators:

  1. Feature
  2. Outcome benefit
  3. General benefit
  4. Emotional benefit

Confused? No worries. Here’s how laddering would play out for an email marketing tool talking to a customer about a new analytics dashboard:

Feature question: What are your first impressions of the analytics dashboard?

Response: It had some interesting information.

Outcome benefit question: How have you used the dashboard?

Response: I tracked the engagement on a new newsletter design.

General benefit question: How did that impact your workflow?

Response: It made it a bit faster to decide whether to keep the design or not.

Emotional benefit question: What does that benefit do for you?

Response: It makes me more confident when I report the decision to my manager.

Record and transcribe

It’s also best to record an interview, so the moderator and note-taker don’t have to remember and write down every last word. You just might pick up something new when you review the audio! Just be sure to let the participant know you're recording.

After the interview, you can use a tool like Otter, Trint, or Rev to transcribe the entire interview. If you use Great Question to conduct your research, the process is even easier. Any interview you book through Great Question will automatically be recorded and transcribed. After your discussions are over, you can use a search function to find common threads.

Phase three: review and use what you’ve learned

The last phase of customer interviews is the reason you started in the first place—find insights that shape the future of your business. Here are our tips for making interview analysis more rewarding.

Debrief with the team

If you have teammates or co-founders that can review recordings with you, do it. Each person can bring a unique perspective that fuels the discussion about what to do with what you learned in the interview. It’s also worth seeing what points stood out to everyone or surprised them.

Tag insights

You can’t act on everything you hear in customer interviews. At least, you can’t right now. While user research helps you prioritize work, you need to look beyond individual responses. Compare customer perspectives to look for recurring themes, tally topics that come up often, and discuss how they compare to your assumptions.

Create action steps

Your final customer interview step is to map out your next steps. Summarize the key points you found in the previous step and share a report with everyone. Include the types of users you interviewed, what you asked, what you learned, and what the next steps are. You can also share role-specific learnings with individual teams.

Nicole Wright, Senior UX Researcher at HoneyBook, is a proponent of cross-functional teams that all have access to research results. She shared,

If someone on the marketing, support, or sales teams wants to see our research summaries, they have access, and that is so important because so often research happens, but then it gets lost. I’m really lucky to work with people that are so cross-functional. They give me input that I can turn into more powerful research. And then my research becomes accessible and helpful across the company.

-Nicole Wright

20+ customer interview questions you can use

Wondering what to ask during a customer interview? We wanted to give you plenty of example questions to kick off your research. Feel free to tailor them to your company and goals.

  1. What is your role?
  2. What made you join your company?
  3. What did you do before this job?
  4. What projects are you working on right now?
  5. What are your top priorities?
  6. What are your goals for the quarter?
  7. What challenges are you facing?
  8. What gets in the way of doing X task?
  9. What is your current solution for X task?
  10. What tools do you currently use?
  11. What do you think you do well in your role?
  12. What part of X process takes you the longest?
  13. How do you plan to solve X challenge?
  14. Who will be involved in solving X challenge?
  15. Why do you use X tactic?
  16. How do you measure success?
  17. What do you wish you could do?
  18. Have you used X feature?
  19. What do you think of this product/feature?
  20. If you were in charge of this product, what would you change?
  21. Which companies did you consider in your search?
  22. What made you choose our company?
  23. How would you feel if you could no longer use our product?
  24. If you could give yourself a score from 0-10 on how well you do X, what would it be? What would it take you to get to a 10?

Customer interview FAQ

What is a customer interview?

A customer interview is a discussion with current or potential customers about their goals, challenges, or feedback on your product. You may see the term “user interview” used interchangeably.

When should I use customer interviews?

Customer interviews help companies of all sizes and stages learn about customer goals, challenges, and opinions. Talking to customers helps your company prioritize updates, refine marketing and positioning, and understand customer motivations.

How many customers should I interview?

Ideally, customer research and interviews is an ongoing process. Continuous research keeps you up to date with customer preferences and can influence company decisions.

If you’re conducting a single customer interview study, start with five interviews. At that point, you can look for common patterns that either prove or disprove your hypothesis. I you still have unanswered questions, continue interviewing more people.  

How long should a customer interview be?

30-45 minutes is a good baseline for customer interview lengths. Anything shorter than that will be difficult to get deep into topics, but customers may shy away from commitments longer than that. You can always adapt interview lengths to match the depth of your research, though.

What should I prepare for a customer interview?

The three things you need before a customer interview is a research goal or topic, a set of participants, and an interview script.

3 ways Great Question makes customer interviews easier

Having a solid customer interview and research plan in place will take you far, but having customer interview software will make the trip faster. Great Question streamlines research so you can find and use customer insights more often. This research tool helps you:

  1. Find the right participants. You can create segments from your database or leverage our recruitment tools. We also make it simple to create recruitment pages.
  2. Manage interviews. Schedule, invite, and conduct interviews from a single dashboard. Plus, Great Questions lets you send automatic incentives.
  3. Share what you’ve learned. Combine hypotheses, insights, transcripts, recommendations, and more into a shareable customer interview report.

Want to learn more? See how to do your best research yet with Great Question.

Similar posts

Ready to dive in?

See the only all-in-one customer research platform